Cambridge Colleges in student ‘fines’ scandal

The College fine racket - St John's College student forced to dig 'irrigation trench' – Downing College student fines used to fund staff coach trip

Forced manual labour, subsidised staff coach trips and students left too afraid to cook. Freedom of Information requests submitted by The Cambridge Student can reveal colleges' murky and arbitrary manner of enforcing discipline.

Since October 2011, a total of £38,209 has been collected in college fines, an average of £1,232.54 per college. The University has no overarching policy with regard to fining students as it is at the discretion of individual colleges to enforce behavioural discipline. Newnham has levied over one quarter of this, £12,872, all of which has "disappeared" into the college's income.

Downing College absorbs the money raised through fines into a fund for an annual coach trip for bedders, porters and administrative staff. The college feels this is a justifiable use of fine money as students are punished whilst the staff who have been inconvenienced by misbehaviour are rewarded.

As colleges set their own disciplinary processes, the system is ambiguous, leaving many students perplexed as to what behaviour merits fining. The Girtonian system is particularly unfair, with students charged up to £15 for each supervision missed. Yet the actual amount varies with £43.43 being charged for missing two supervisions and £50.32 for missing three. Students are also fined £50 for leaving their bikes unattended in prohibited areas and if there is an act of vandalism on college grounds, the entire student body is fined, regardless of whether the act is committed by an individual acting alone, or by the drinking society, the Girton Green Monsters.

Whilst "noise disturbance" in Kings' will see you set back £25 per head for every person involved, a "noise violation" in Pembroke merits a fine of £180. Pembroke also fines £70 for setting off the fire alarm, yet a student of the college, who wishes to remain anonymous, told TCS: "One of my friends was fined £80 for setting off the fire alarm by boiling a kettle. Pembroke said they'd lower the fine if he didn't contest them."

The fining systems at Lucy Cavendish and Newnham are similarly misleading. All fines at Lucy Cavendish arise from leaving rooms in what were perceived to be unacceptable states. Although there is a lengthy catalogue of fines, detailing the costs for certain offences, they are still open to interpretation. How does one judge when a pillow needs replacing? The Newnham system is also opaque. Whilst the college charged £6,719 for ‘housekeeping', nowhere does it state specific charges - the fine simply appears on college bills, leaving Newnham students to guess what went wrong.

Whilst they do not fine, the discipline system at St John's is equally radical and subjective. They impose a "community service" scheme in which the Office of the Dean has the right to administer any disciplinary measure seen fit. One student, who wished to remain anonymous, was sentenced to helping the groundsman to dig and fill in an irrigation trench. Another had to clean toilets at 8am for an hour every day for six days in a row.

A student from Queens' said that the community service system is preferable, commenting: "I think fining is terrible, as how severely people are affected by the fines will be largely dependent on the economic situation of the student and his/her family, which makes the system of punishment highly unfair."

Although thirteen colleges, including Queens', responded to our FOI request saying that they do not levy fines, they do have other means of maintaining discipline. Most colleges will charge for any damage done to rooms, for example, but as this is a remunerative sum it is therefore classed as a charge rather than a fine.

The discrepancies between college's fining policies would appear to stem from Statutes and Ordinances which lays out that the University "shall have all the powers of a natural person to acquire, manage, charge, deal with, and dispose of property, both real and personal so that it may exercise any power and may enter into and carry out any kind of transaction without limitation." In agreeing to the Ordinances at matriculation, students at the University of Cambridge effectively acknowledge the University's authority to deal with damage to property in any way the University sees fit.

As every student must agree to abide by Statutes and Ordinances at matriculation, each member of the university is acknowledging the University's power to fine, discipline or punish them as they wish. "The University appears to have absolute power over its students and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it- this is very worrying," another student told TCS. The fining and discipline system is inherently unfair and reveals the University's failure to communicate with its students from the day of their matriculation.

Worst culprits*

1. £12,872 Newnham

2. £9,930 Gonville & Caius

3. £6,245 Fitzwilliam

4. £1,764 Clare

5. £1,275.25 Girton

Severest fines*

1. Clare £1,205 - split between 5 students for a party.

2. Magdalene £600 - smoking cannabis in room.

3. Fitzwilliam £240 - bringing college into disrepute.

4.Downing £200 - stolen candlestick.

(*Taken from replies received to FOI requests made by The Cambridge Student newspaper)

Rebecca Thomas & Jenny Buckley

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Queens' College come clean about Kafkaesque punishment

Comment on this story (3)

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  1. Fabio Tartarini, Institute of Criminology

    That one might agree or not, I don't think that the fines system is a bullet-proof system. What are colleges trying to communicate? If someone can afford it, they can behave however they like? I don't get it why money is so central in the fining system. I believe respect should be taught on other grounds rather than on fines that, unsurprisingly, are surely not fair as they touch on other aspects students' life that are not related to their ethics but rather their bank account.

  2. Sasha Valeri Millwood, Girton College

    Sir: Whilst the authors have the right to disagree with the disciplinary system, I do not think "unfair" is a reasonable descriptor for the Girton system. Supervisions are a central requirement of undergraduate education in Cambridge, and it is made clear to undergraduates that they must attend all supervisions. College has every right to fine someone if they miss a supervision, although in reality, I know many people that appear to have got away with it. As for bicycle parking, there are clear signs in the vicinity of the cycle sheds warning people of the consequences of parking in an inappropriate manner. Regarding vandalism/damage, it must needs be clarified that charging the whole student body only takes place where it cannot be attributed. It might be harsh, but in the circumstances, cannot be described as "unfair", and ultimately College has to recover the cost of the repair somehow. Furthermore, this method does marginally improve the chances of the culprit being reported or making themselves known.

  3. J. Wright, Queens' College

    "Although thirteen colleges, including Queens', responded to our FOI request saying that they do not levy fines" Queens' fined me £15 for not paying my college fees on time, although they also called this a 'charge'.